Covering Children and Trauma

The single best way for editors to improve coverage of child trauma is to create beats where reporters regularly do stories about kids. That means expanding beyond the traditional education beat and assigning journalists to specialize in social policy, child trends or family issues. Those reporters will become experts at interviewing and writing about kids. They will know whom to call when a 13-year-old boy is charged with killing his parents or an infant is found abandoned on a sidewalk.

  • Make sure your newspaper or broadcast station has thoughtful policies, whether written or unwritten, about naming child victims or teen crime suspects. Try to balance the public’s need to know and the importance of the information with the harm that can be done to a juvenile, especially since cyberspace has a permanence of its own. The best policies are flexible and take into consideration the special circumstances of each case.
  • Don’t let pack journalism dictate your decisions about naming juveniles. Just because your competitor is naming a 13-year-old sexual offender in the wake of community hysteria doesn’t mean you should.
  • At the same time, be flexible when an ethically sound opportunity presents itself. Don’t automatically refuse to name a 16-year-old foster child who wants to tell her story just because she is a minor.
  • Work with the photo editor to ensure that the photographer assigned to a story knows about any ground rules (e.g., non-identifying photos, sensitive topics).
  • After a disaster, assign stories that will educate parents about the effects of violence on children and how to minimize trauma. Encourage parents to limit media exposure, especially with younger children. Provide information about where to turn for help. Tell readers what government officials are doing to protect the community and how to develop safety plans. Look for hopeful stories about victims rebuilding their lives.
  • Don’t rerun the same graphic photos again and again. Consider the negative impact of violent headlines/photos/details on younger readers who are part of your audience. Run “graphic content” warnings. Exposure to disturbing images can cause or exacerbate post-traumatic stress in children.
  • Be careful about anniversary stories. Ask what you want to accomplish with the story: Is there a way to go beyond rehashing painful details yet again? Be aware that such stories often reopen victims’ wounds. There is no such thing as “closure” for most victims. Never trivialize their grief in an effort to neatly and over-optimistically wrap up a story.
  • Avoid turning one victim into a “poster child survivor” when many have suffered similar losses. Turning victims into heroes can be confusing for kids who just need to grieve over what’s happened.
  • Look for follow-up stories that go beyond the immediate event and examine systemic issues—e.g., a string of dog attacks on kids might prompt the question “Are leash laws being enforced?” or a school bus crash that kills a student might signal a larger problem like sloppy vehicle maintenance or improper screening of drivers.
  • Allow reporters the extra time it takes to find and interview children. Recognize that hurdles such as confidentiality and getting permission from parents slow down the reporting process.
  • Challenge institutions that refuse access to important information about children’s lives.
  • Be sensitive to the emotional fallout reporters and photographers experience when covering violence. Take them for coffee and ask how they’re doing. Often, journalists have a hard time admitting they’re struggling emotionally. Give them time off to rejuvenate.
  • Set up employee-assistance programs that offer confidential professional counseling and encourage journalists to use the resource.